With its long-awaited opening this spring, Alila Marea Beach Resort brings major splash to the San Diego coast. High on a coastal bluff in the funky-chic surf town of Encinitas, the 130-room property is part of Hyatt’s Alila luxury chain of 17 hotels around the world. But from the views to the vibe, this luxury boutique hotel couldn’t really be anywhere else but San Diego.
A year-plus into quarantine after all that time stuck at home, my wife thought it would be wise for my teenage son and me to have some bonding time somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t our kitchen, yard or Zoom room. So, both freshly vaxed, Sebastian and I headed south from Los Angeles for an adventure by the beach. It was our first leap back into the world of travel since the shutdown, and Alila Marea made the landing easy in many more ways than one.
From its discreet driveway entrance, Alila Marea feels like a small hotel but it’s quite grand with 114 spacious guestrooms, nine studio rooms, five one-bedroom suites, and palatial Ponto and Grandview presidential suites. The elegant clifftop aerie has postcard views up and down the Encinitas coast, with mighty brown pelicans gliding above and below in graceful splendor. The hotel decor, by San Diego-based Joseph Wong Design Associates with interior design by Mark Zeff Associates, is modern and clean with microdoses of seaside cool. Smooth stone reception desks, touches of driftwood, private patios with fire pits, evocative ocean art by local surf photographer Aaron Chang. Imagine the elegant beachfront residence of someone who’s made zillions in the skate or surf industry (there are a lot of those people around the neighborhood) and you’ll get a sense of the look and feel at Alila Marea.
The pool is oddly small, or maybe it’s the panoramic ocean around that makes it feel that way. But it’s pleasant to hang and have fish tacos or hand rolls at The Pocket pool deck spot with its custom handmade surfboard-inspired wall panels from local “shaper” Brian Szymanski.
Alila Marea works hard to play well with the neighbors, down to providing local roaster Lofty Coffee practically on IV drip. There are bikes available at the valet stand from Electra Bicycle Company, the Encinitas-based e-bike brand, which customized a fleet of two-wheelers for the property. You can take surf lessons with Surfin Fire local, one of the top local surf schools. Mint Studio is a Carlsbad creative collective that partners with the hotel on curated experiences in crafting, painting and other Etsy-approved arts.
San Diego native and James Beard Award semifinalist Claudette Zepeda oversees the menu at Alila Marea, and that might be the best reason — beside those stunning views — to visit the property. At VAGA Restaurant & Bar, Zepeda serves San Diego Saraspe blue fin tuna crudo, crispy housemade gnocchi and a 26 oz Snake River tomahawk steak big enough to paddle your sea kayak. In a flash (not to mention in a pandemic), Zepeda has created one of San Diego’s most exciting new dining spots.
In town in Encinitas, Le Papagayo isn’t fancy (fancy doesn’t really fly in Encinitas) but you’ll be plenty satisfied with Oaxaca skillet steak tacos or the Pacific rim bouillabaisse, and it’s always a lively, family-friendly scene.
Nectarine Grove is earthy, healthy, sunny and nicely caffeinated—a fine spot for organic, paleo, gluten-free feel-good dining and groovy people watching.
On the curated list of “Alila Experiences,” there’s this high flyer: An old-fashioned adventure of the most heart-pounding sort, San Diego Sky Tours instantly summons every adrenaline molecule you’ve left dormant over the past year of nothing-doing. The company’s open-cockpit biplane charters along the San Diego coast are tailored to your comfort level, whether that’s a gentle sunset tour or a full-on aerial-show-style acrobatics stunt out with loops and corkscrew dips (guess which one the 17-year-old chose and why I decided to stay on the ground.).
The pilots are the best of the best (behold their reviews!). We were fortunate to have Vinny “Otter” Lostetter, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel who flew B1 bombers, which makes him sound like a fasten-your-seatbelts-maggots kinda guy but he’s a sweetheart. Otter retired from the Air Force in 2013 and is Air Force JROTC Commander at a local San Diego High School when he’s not back-flipping these nimble bi-wings.
Hiking the bluffs and beaches along the Encinitas coast is your Zen rehab after whatever stoked-up thrill you’ve chosen, and—at sunset especially—the trio of trails at Batiquitos Lagoon, Torrey Pines and San Elijo remind you how good it is to be seeing beautiful new horizons again.